SINGAPORE - More Singaporeans should come forward to ease the load of caregivers, who are often women, said Minister for Communications and Information Josephine Teo on Saturday.
Speaking at the People's Action Party (PAP) annual Women's Wing conference, Mrs Teo and Nee Soon GRC MP Carrie Tan called for support for 23 organisations helping caregivers.
Some of these groups are struggling to recruit and retain enough committed volunteers after several dropped out during the Covid-19 pandemic, they said.
"On average, these groups have fewer than half the volunteers they need each month... So let us step up to ensure that volunteerism also has a chance to emerge stronger from the pandemic," said Mrs Teo, who is also Second Minister for Home Affairs and chairs the Women's Wing.
Although there is less stereotyping of women as primary caregivers now in Singapore as more men take on the role, more can be done to encourage this trend to continue, Mrs Teo told the media.
Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Lawrence Wong, who also spoke at the conference, said Singapore has made progress in women's development but persistent and insidious gender gaps still exist, with gender stereotypes posing a major challenge.
Noting that the differences between men and women are deep-rooted in human nature and physiology, Mr Wong said unhelpful stereotypes and labels sometimes emerge from these differences, especially when they are reinforced by cultural and popular media.
For example, women are seen as being too cautious to take risks and not aggressive enough to be effective leaders. Such stereotypes, Mr Wong added, can entrench a certain mindset about women and how they are judged.
These stereotypes become self-fulfilling prophecies that inhibit and dissuade women from making their voices heard or making the career choices that they are entitled to, he said.
Even seeing women as more nurturing than men is unhelpful if men use this as a reason to leave the caring of children and families to women while they focus on their careers, he added.
Mr Wong said: "Caregiving roles should not be a domain only for women. Men can and must do our part too - men must be involved in raising children and looking after elderly parents."
Highlighting the role of social media in "turbo-charging" these gender stereotypes, Mr Wong noted that these mindsets are often the precursor of more extreme sexist attitudes, hate speech, bullying, harassment and even sexual abuse and violence.
That is why Singapore must continue to step up efforts to tackle this issue, including teaching students not to stereotype; protecting women from violence and harm, especially online, and discrimination at the workplace; and improving the broader infrastructure and ecosystem for childcare, infantcare and eldercare, he said.
Said Mr Wong: "Ultimately, we must try to shape more progressive family norms, to encourage more shared parental responsibilities and a more balanced sharing of family caregiving responsibilities too.
"And if we can do all that, then I'm sure we can see more women thrive, excel and advance in leadership roles, in both the public and private sectors, and... on their own merit, and not through some special scheme or treatment because you do not need that."
Saturday's conference is the PAP Women's Wing's first in-person one since 2019 and was attended by some 500 people, including past and present MPs, and representatives from the social service sector.
In a dialogue session, Mr Wong, Mrs Teo and Ms Tan, who organised this year's conference, also fielded questions on equal pay for women and the possibility of Singapore getting its first female deputy prime minister, among others.
At the conference, representatives of social service agencies and ground-up groups, such as learning and social platform Mum Space and Go With The Motion, which provides diapers to low-income families who need them, connected with PAP activists, some of whom have expressed interest in volunteering.
This can help Montfort Care meet a growing need for volunteers as the charity scales up its services, which include escorting the elderly to medical appointments, said Ms Wang Yu Hsuan, director of eldercare services at GoodLife!, a centre under Montfort Care.
While more young people are helping out in services that do not require them to be on site, Ms Wang, 46, said some seniors who volunteer in person have been turning up less frequently because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Likewise, Be Kind SG, a volunteer group for people with disabilities that are not visible, such as autism, has seen its pool of volunteers drop from about 700 people to around 100 during the pandemic, said founder and director Sherry Soon, 41.
She said its Be a Special Friend programme, a befriending service for adults living in destitute or adult disability homes, needs more volunteers for its monthly home visits.